"Tell me about the firebird," I said.

"Beautiful," he said. "With feathers of red, gold and orange and a spirit like sunset fire. Strong-willed and elusive, but sought after, caged often and resentful of the bars. Lonely and always seeking to be free. A pure soul, loving beauty and willing to sacrifice in order to obtain such for the world and its people."

Firebird – JC Jaquez

Gunapi the Sunrose could not wear her fire-and-rose mantle with more grace than Sarugani of Temaida does her beauty. Exquisite is the robe of tissue-gold wrapped around her figure - a robe that many a fine luarin noblewoman mocks for it's gaudiness, envying it secretly in her heart. Far more exquisite is the body sheathed so lightly, so gracefully - like a rosebud nestled in it's dew-speckled leaf - within the shimmering folds of the robe.

The young Count Tomang, recently raised to the pre-eminence of his inheritance, writes sonnets to her rose-red lips as his son will do to her daughter in the years to come. Lady Genore, his betrothed, pouts unbeautifully to the old Countess who is much aggrieved over the latest transgression of her impressionable boy.

"Milords, the King's archers take fire quickly at bright raka eyes," Lady Winnamine says archly to her friend, referring to Tomang's skill with the bow. Then, anxiously, "Take care, the wasp bears a sting." `

Sarugani throws back her head and laughs with the splendid carelessness and sugar-spun gaiety of sixteen. "Aye, and honey as well."

"She won't bear honey for the likes of you," Winna reminds her. Not when she thinks you're naught but a jungle-bred raka urchin.

"If she won't others will," Sarugani says airily, tugging out the jeweled pins that hold her coiled and braided locks in place and lying down on the quilt they've spread on the ground. "And I don't mean that Tomang boy either!" she cries, pelting her friend with acorns. They are young then, only sixteen, one as lovely as a flame swaying enticingly, scorchingly just out of reach, the other as serene as the silver maiden that watched over the Rittevon line. The Sunrose and the Moon Maiden, as love-struck youths call them in their sonnets.

Proud Sarugani, beautiful Sarugani, reckless and defiant. Dancing, riding, laughing, leaping, pouting, teasing... what fire! What spirit! "Vile little jungle bitch, raka trash," the more sedate luarin ladies sniff beneath their pearl-and-ivory fans, trying (and failing) to conceal their disappointment at finding themselves wallflowers when all the men clamor for the 'uncouth Temaida girl' at balls.

She's the best horsewoman by far at court. But it's not for the smooth rides in the picture-perfect parks favored by the nobility in Rajmuat that her heart yearns for.

"Take care, My Lady," the raka hostlers murmur when she comes down ever morning at dawn, dressed as a man (those old biddies would have fits if they saw me, she can't help think) and requesting that her horse be readied without a side-saddle. "Take care."

Of what? She thinks, accepting their warnings with a gracious smile and sweeping into the saddle with the stateliness of a queen. Rajmuat isn't the rocky highlands of Tanair where she spent her childhood, as happily neglected as any of the village children, but it suffices. From the Grey Palace to Dockmarket, she rides. No, she gallops. Stars still glimmer in the high dark arch of the sky as she thunders past narrow shanty by-lanes and the great, empty boulevards, and the dawn air weaves through her unbound hair.

Beloved daughter,

The letters all begin that way. Her pretty mouth hardens as she sits in her chamber at the Grey Palace - the only raka Maid of Honor to the Queen - and reads them. Beloved daughter, you know where your duty lies.

My duty would have me be little better than a Dockmarket trollop, she thinks, furiously pacing through the room, refusing to admit even Winnamine. But then she composes herself, subdues her feelings as she always does and sits down to write the reply expected of her.

His Grace, Duke Mequen Balitang has recently come to Court after a spell with his Gempang relatives.

She educates herself quickly in the things that interest the duke. Chess, locks, the history of Carthak... she yawns over the heavy, dust-mottled tomes and wishes she'd paid more attention to the Daughters in the convent. "What are you doing with these?" Winna wants to know. "You didn't go riding yesterday and Murtebo was all out of sorts for that! Goddess, don't tell me you've caught a touch of..."

"Of course I haven't," Sarugani tells her, her voice sharpened with vexation. "You've known me since I was ten - you know I'm quite as healthy as any of His Majesty's prize mounts, possibly even healthier."

She doesn't let anyone know about her plans, not even sweet, dear Winna who is so charmed by the quiet, grave-eyed duke and his old-fashioned chivalry. Well he would appeal to a girl of Winna's insipid tastes! Sarugani sits in her chamber, her head resting on her arm, trying to decide what to write back home. She thinks of the men, the gorgeous men, the dashing men sighing for her, all in a frenzy of wild lovesickness and thinks sulkily that it's just not fair that the simplest and dullest of the lot should happen to be the most eligible of bridegrooms. She thinks about Winna too with a tinge of guilt... poor Winna who thinks she's in love with handsome Murtebo.

Well she is in love with Murtebo and his heavy-lidded eyes, clouding over lust when they sit together in the little Magnolia Pavilion with the whisper of a minstrel's lute stirring the twilight...

She closes her eyes and composes herself.

His Grace has been especially attentive to me this past fortnight. Take that news as you will.

He falls for her - how could he not? He sees those clear eyes, alight with passion, fire next to the frost of the fair luarin maidens who are her companions. He sees those pretty red lips, asking trite questions so prettily - "You must forgive me for being such a blockhead, Your Grace, at chess! It's just so fascinating... but how does the knight move again?" - and answers her with even more than usual patience.

"Such innocence is rare here," he muses absentmindedly to Rubinyan. "That little raka girl, I've never seen anyone so charming, so very ignorant about life..."

Rubinyan says nothing, but he watches the youngest princess, Imajane with her dancing silver-blond curls and her little satin-clad slippers keeping time to the music. There's a pause in the music and he glides over to her and whirls the thrilled, happy little girl - she's only nine, bubbling over with excitement at her first grown-up ball - around the ballroom floor.

Sarugani of Temaida isn't seventeen before Duke Mequen asks her out for a walk one balmy summer afternoon. She sits on a marble bench, pink rosebuds wreathed in her silky black curls, her wondering eyes - such sweetness, such innocence he muses - raised up to his. And there, as befits a soldier, he asks her to be his wife. She casts her eyes down - with maidenly modesty, he assumes - and trembles - with love of him, he hopes.

Actually, she's calculating how best to frame the news in her letter home.

"Oh... Mequen!" she cries and throws her arms around him. She kisses him, fire in her eyes, fire on her lips, all the time wondering whether she'll ever kiss Murtebo again - by Kyprioth, the man could kiss! For a moment she feels like slapping Mequen, that milksop with his eyes as gentle and ever-the-same as a cow's eyes, but then the cool voice of reason reminds her of her duty.

Winna looks down when Sarugani whirls into her chamber, looking for all the world like a girl madly in love, and only murmurs to the hearth, "But I thought she loved Murtebo," after her friend leaves.

The news of the betrothal causes a scandal at court. Mequen Balitang and Sarugani of Temaida! A royal duke to marry the daughter of an upstart raka baron! Why... "Little hussy," Nuritin Balitang snaps sourly, moments before being introduced to her nephew's future bride. "Raka blood to defile our lineage... what next?"

Sarugani pretends she doesn't notice the jibes, the sneers, the insinuations that she's carrying his illegitimate child... years as the only raka surrounded by luarin has hardened her. Mequen however will take none of that. "If you cannot accept Lady Sarugani as my wife," he tells his aunt icily after she eyes Sarugani's abdomen suspiciously after being introduced. "Then I must ask you to leave my presence."

Sarugani is touched in spite of herself. And that old-fashioned chivalry which she'd scorned as being stuffy only a few months ago charms her now. "Thank you," she whispers, squeezing his hand and looking up at him. "You're too kind to me."

He kisses her hand gallantly. "I would do anything for you." The words are trite but they make her smile. And later she shakes her head slowly over his foolishness. You wouldn't if you knew why I was marrying you.

They exchange their vows under the white-and-gold arch before the Goddess's altar. The First Daughter of the Rittevons' favored temple pours the holy water out of a salve of rosy-veined marble over their heads. The luarin nobility, stiffly magnificent, watch through hard, narrow eyes, reminding Mequen of fat crocodiles sunning themselves on the mud in Carthak. Perhaps it is a good thing that he doesn't notice the raka slaves, lined up a respectful distance behind the more noble guests, their eyes peculiarly bright.

He whisks her to his Malubesang estates almost immediately afterwards, away from the hustle and bustle of the court which he despises. Their bridal ship snakes through the shimmering turquoise waters away from Rajmuat. On the trip, she sees the gray and red fish that adorn the moat of the Grey Palace in their natural habitat. It's then, leaning on the handrail, a slave hovering near and shading her with a dainty lace parasol, that she recalls the bloody use the Rittevons have put them to. It's there, the salt breeze tugging at her sheer veil, that she realizes how important her duty is, and to who she owes it.

The thought overwhelms her.

The sprawling estates over the lush, softly-sloping hills of Malubesang are heaven to her country-raised eyes. It's been over a year since she's been to Tanair and she fits in quickly, easily into the slow-paced country routine. It's there, cantering in the woods adjoining the main estates, playing at being mistress of the household (Quedanga the housekeeper is far more the mistress than she will ever be, she soon realizes) and learning more about chess that she finds out about the man she has married.

She learns about his father, an iron-willed lord of the 'old sort' as Mequen phrases it (a sadistic and dangerously creative master as his raka slaves would say), who'd fathered many a half-raka bastard. "My mother had them sold in the market before they were a year old," Mequen admits when she asks him what happened to them. She learns about his mother, the ethereal Rittevon princess, sister to - and some whispered, lover of - mad Oron.

"I was sent to the palace when I was ten for page training," he says. "Rubinyan's mother - Duchess Jimajen - she was like a mother to me." Much more than my own mother. "We were like brothers," he continues, "And little Bronau, he'd tag along behind us and a fine spanking Rubinyan'd give him!" As a man, he'd been sent to Carthak as a Royal envoy, a task he'd carried out, Sarugani knew, with flair.

It can't compare to her own life, so pale and insignificant next to the bold strokes and color of his, but he seems fascinated as she tells him about it. She speaks of her childhood on Lombyn, a raggedy, motherless little girl who roamed through Tanair Plateau as freely as the little goatherds who were her first friends. "That's how we rear our children," she says simply when he expresses his bewilderment that a baron's daughter should be raised so. "What difference can rank make? Aren't we all the Mother's children?" And then she was sent at the age of ten, the first of the daughters of the Temaida line, to the convent at Kypriang Island.

"None of the girls would talk to me," she admits. "I looked little better than their slaves then - a copper-skinned waif in a patched gown. Why should they care to defile themselves by association with me?"

"Lady Fonfala did," Mequen reminds her.

"Ah yes... Winna," Sarugani murmurs, her eyes misting over. "She was always too kind - far more than I deserve."

They have a child before the year is up. Saraiyu, a diminutive of Sarugani's mother's name. Sarai is the old raka word for contentious - a meaning Sarugani hopes her husband doesn't know. Baron Temaida comes to his first grandchild, bringing a train of gauche raka relatives in his wake. It irritates Sarugani, still weak from the strain of childbirth, to see them walking up and down her lovely palace, staring openmouthed at the delicate Yamani scrolls, the expensive stained-glass windows and the new-fangled devices Mequen has had installed.

"Saraiyu," her father murmurs, holding the baby up. "A beautiful name for a beautiful child." He says nothing more as Mequen is present in the nursery. Sarugani can almost see the vision her father dreams of - the gold-and-copper crown of the old raka queens hovering over her child's head. She shudders as she takes Sarai from her father. Your destiny is set in stone, little one, Sarugani thinks as the baby's mouth works methodically at her breasts (she'd refused to have a wet-nurse much to Lady Nuritin's displeasure, insisting that it wasn't the raka way), her tiny pink hands flailing. Gods all bless, it will be a hard one.

She cannot regard Sarai as a daughter - to her, as to all the raka, the child will always be something more, a symbol of a future long-promised, a beacon of hope. Sometimes it's hard to remember that she's still only a little girl, to plait her glossy black hair without thinking that one day a crown might rest on that smooth little head.

Mequen doesn't face the same problem she does. Sarai is Sarugani in miniature and his darling, his pampered little princess. Sarugani thinks that he spoils the child too much but it's hard not to - Sarai is a perfect terror when she's in a temper, but it's hard not to love her, not to fall under the spell of his wickedly dancing eyes and that sweetly sculpted little pout.

Winna drifts indifferently into marriage, at her family's urging, with a headstrong second cousin in the navy. When he dies, a scant three moons after the nuptials, Winna expresses no grief. "I've done my duty by marriage," she says, visiting Malubesang clad in a widow's weeds. "We always knew he'd come to an untimely death - Mithros, he was always reckless! At least dying at sea is a more glorious death than say a, oh I don't know, a drunken brawl in some Marenite tavern."

"Winna," Sarugani says, setting down her needlepoint and reaching impulsively for her friend. "I'm so sorry that I..."

"Hush," Winna says softly, taking Sarugani's hand in her own and awkwardly patting it. "You married to your advantage, as was expected of you. How can I hate you for it?"

You should, but you don't. You're the best friend anyone could ever have.

Winna slips into Sarugani's household like an old member of the family.

The next child is Dovasary, named for Oron's new queen. "And it's a pretty name," Sarugani explains dryly to Winna. "I can't help it if that piranha shares the name." It's a luarin name to it's core, and one whose irony Dove will later reflect on. Sarugani is determined to raise her girls the raka way, no matter what anyone thinks.

"Archery lessons! Staff-fighting! Swordsmanship? Sarugani, what are you thinking of?" Winna cries aghast when Sarugani informs her of her plans.

"I was raised that way," Sarugani reminds her. "And I turned out as well as any of those frivolous court butterflies."

"Yes, I suppose so," Winna says, wringing her hands. "But Sarugani, that was different. You were only a raka country baron's daughter but Sarai and Dove are... well, you know..."

"Luarin royalty?" Sarugani asks. She shrugs. "It makes no difference to me - they're my daughters and by the Goddess, I mean to have a hand in their education."

She bowls down Mequen's objections as she always does, charming him into submissiveness as only she can. Lady Nuritin she firmly ignores until the indignant dowager leaves Malubesang for Rajmuat in high dudgeon, declaring that she won't spend another minute in the rakafied atmosphere. Sarai takes to riding and combat with her mother's ease and though Mequen sometimes moans about how unladylike she's turning, Sarugani knows he's mightily proud of his bold, fiery daughter. Dove is the quiet one - not shy, Sarugani insists, just quiet - and she responds better when her mother tries to teach her chess.

In years to come, young Lady Dove Balitang will be famed at court for her skill at the game but she learns her first lessons at her mother's knees. Before she's four, she's a far better player than her mother. "Ah well," Sarugani says, laughing dismissively as she hands over Dove to Mequen, "Mithros knows I'm more heart than head!"

In the way of her old nurse, Jumjumai Dodeka, Sarugani tells the girls old raka fairytales, using her slender, long-fingered hands to paint shadow-pictures on the walls. She tells them about the last battle on the Plain of Sorrows and eight-year-old Sarai's eyes light up when she hears that one-third of the raka warriors were women. "So what?" Dove, prosaic even at four, demands scornfully. "They all died in the end."

But Sarugani is careful never, never to tell the children about the twice-royal queen prophesied to lead the raka to victory again.

"Mama," Sarai asks innocently, one day when they're out riding. "How can the promised queen be twice royal?"

Sarugani reins in her gelding and whirls around to face her daughter, white-lipped. "What queen? Who told you about her?"

"Chenaol," Sarai answers. "I was helping her make a pie because it was ever so rainy that day and she told me. Mama, why're you so pale?"

"This is the last time you'll tarry your hours in the kitchen," Sarugani says, sharper than she has ever been with her eldest child. "It's vulgar - I won't have it. Chenaol should have known better than to fill your ears with such... falsehoods."

"But Mama," Sarai begins in protest.

Sarugani holds her hand up. "Enough," she says, her eyes flashing. She dismisses Chenaol promptly, sending her back to the Balitang townhouse in Rajmuat. Spring comes in a shower of fragrance and velvet-petaled blossoms to Malubesang and with it a royal ship from Rajmuat bearing bad news. When they return to the capital they find wooden crosses stretching for miles down the jagged coastline.

Nailed to them are Prince Hanoren Rittevon and the members of his household.

"Goddess grant them a safe passage," Winna murmurs, shielding Dove's and Sarai's eyes as best as she can. Sarugani trembles, her hands knotted within her silk gown. Rubies glimmer on each copper finger but they are no comfort, no assurance. Rubies as lovely as hers catch the sunlight and glint from Princess Oraciyu's ears as her corpse sways in the sultry breeze, close to her husband's. She counts those next in line to the throne all the way.

"We could be next," she tells Mequen, ensconed in the safety of their bedchamber. "If His Majesty..."

"Let us not invite trouble, my dear," he tells her gently.

"Did His Highness invite trouble?" she asks, her voice rising shrilly. She tries to control herself but she can't. She is frightened, more frightened than she has ever been. She would have given anything to have some of Winna's composure. "My Lady Oraciyu was His Majesty's goddaughter, his pet from childhood!"

"His Majesty had a bad dream," Mequen says, still retaining his composure. Rather like Winna. "I did not wish to frighten you earlier with this unfortunate story but..." And then he recites the tale Rubinyan had told him, about how the king had dreamt that his son had turned into a rat and bitten him.

"Why he's..." Sarugani splutters, searching for a word.

"Don't let your temper get the better of you, my dear," Mequen responds. "He is the king, after all." And he has spies everywhere.

"We could be next," Sarugani says, flopping down on the bed wearily.

"Perhaps. Perhaps not." Mequen kisses her forehead gently. "At the moment His Majesty is kindly disposed towards us. And after all, as I have no royal ambitions - I've never told you this but, before our wedding he made me swear a blood-oath never to put my claim to the throne forwards, as is my right by lineage. I have no sons and since Sarai and Dove cannot inherit, I foresee no problems in the near future."

Nineteen-year-old Princess Imajane marries Rubinyan that spring. She's grown into the beauty of her lineage, a glacial ice princess, her head held as high as the queen she will never truly be. She really is the spitting image of her eldest sister, Josiane, who'd died by the Lioness's axe in faraway Tortall. There'll be no happy fate, no gold-leaf-adorned coffin and marble-sculpted tomb for this princess either, but no one at the wedding knows that.

There's another romance blossoming at Balitang House, where Bronau's frequent visits begin to arouse Sarugani's suspicions. He's a good-looking man, really quite charming, and Sarugani starts planning how she'll tease Winna when they announce the betrothal. Winna, in typical Winna fashion, manages to lay a damper on her best friend's plans.

"He asked me thrice and I refused him as gracefully as the Daughters at the convent taught us how to refuse a man," Winna tells incredulous Sarugani at summer's end. "The fourth time I told him that propriety could not make further allowances for a besotted man and bid him hie away to some damsel who might be more receptive to his proposition."

"But... why?" Sarugani spluttered. "Winna, I thought you loved him!"

"Don't be absurd, darling," Winna says serenely, bringing out her needlework.

"I thought he loved you!"

"No, he confessed that a marriage of convenience would please him. The implication was that it might please me well too."

"Why shouldn't it? Winnamine Fonfala, I beg you to reconsider your position!"

Winna looked up, irritation plain on her features. "My position is much to my liking. I cannot see how it does not please you. I am a woman of some property and will never be driven to my relatives' charity - there for my monetary position. I see no reason why I should take on the burden of managing a man's household, free of cost, for him. Children? Sarai and Dove - and you - are quite enough at the moment. Besides, I wouldn't have enough time to sew, if I married him."

"Well," Sarugani finally says sulkily. "He was charming."

"Yes," Winna says absently. "I suppose he would appear so to you." You forget rash, impetuous and as driven to debt as fleas to a dog.

Sarugani had always wondered why Mequen hated it so at court - she'd liked it well enough. But a few short weeks were enough to tell her why. As a girl, accustomed to the poisoned atmosphere at the Convent where nobly-bred girls were actually urged to be as nasty as possible to eachother (something to do about toughening their spirits), court was nothing new. But years at Malubesang and Tongkang 'buried in country life' as one court lady archly put it, she'd mellowed. She'd rather be a slave in a rice field, she decided, than endure years wallowing in the depravity of King Oron's court.

It was a relief when Mequen finally decided that it was safe to leave Rajmuat. She whirled round and round, like Sarai, in their bedchamber when he told her before he drew her down, laughing, to their bed. All along the way to Malubesang, she kept her little secret to herself, wanting to surprise him later. When she'd carried Sarai, she'd feared childbirth, dreading that she would die in childbed like her mother. During Dove's time, she'd loathed the sickening months of waiting, the weakness and the nausea, her ugliness. Now she was all aglow with expectation and excitement. Her skin and hair took on the sheen it always did during the early months. She was always smiling, always laughing.

Maybe it would be a boy. Mequen would have the heir he yearned for then. Sarai and Dove would be delighted if it was a girl too.

And so she dreamt all the way to their estates. She didn't tell Mequen that night, deciding that she'd keep the news to herself for a time. At dawn she crept away from their bed, as was her habit, and down to the stables, dressed like a man. She'd go riding. It might be the last time in months; heavens knew Mequen would be sure to forbid her when he learnt about her condition. He really was so... prissy at times!

Lokeij had her gelding saddled by the time she'd reached the stables. He tipped his head to her in a luarin-style salute, beaming fondly at her. It had been old Lokeij who'd taught her to ride when she was just a little girl, Lokeij who'd helped teach Sarai. "Take care, My Lady," he said, handing her the reins.

"Don't I always?" she asked archly, mounting. She'd take the leap over that narrow gorge in the woods... it looked easy. "Goodbye, Lokeij!" she cried, urging her horse forwards.

"Goodbye, My Lady!" he called after her, his bright black eyes crinkling as he laughed.

She rode into the cool dawn. Streaks, pink and pale gold, fretted the dusky violet sky. Gunapi the Sunrose had begun to spread her mantle over the earth, as the raka said. It was early autumn and the breeze whipped a few leaves, russet-red, into her hair. Smiling, she paused for a moment to savor the beauty.

It was going to be a lovely day.

A/N: Well... you know how it ends. Hope you liked it!